First of all, before I get to the article, I’d like to take this time to introduce this series, The Big “What If”.
I have always been intrigued by the idea of Alternate History, those “What If” questions that start off with the changing of a single moment of the past. And as a hockey fan, I have always wondered how these can be applied to the sport. So in this series, I am looking at the effects that changing a single event in hockey history – whether it be a trade, a free agent signing, or something as small as a puck bouncing a little differently – can have on the future.
With this in mind, I’d like to add a bit of a disclaimer. These speculative articles are just that, speculative. They are mainly based on my theories, hypotheses, and occasionally, even an artistic flight of fancy. It’s hard to say what could have happened in these cases, and I certainly can’t get into the heads of every player, coach, or general manager involved. These are merely my estimations based on what happened in the original timeline (OTL).
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Representatives of the thirty National Hockey League teams are gathered in General Motors Place, the home of the Vancouver Canucks, for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The previous season was the first in the new era of the NHL, one in which speed and offensive play were meant to be elevated to the forefront. Teams that had once ruled the rink with sheer physicality were now left watching as teams with more talent were beginning to shine. It was also an advent for younger talents, as the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin had entered the league with a bang, both scoring over 100 points in their rookie years. The Carolina Hurricanes, a team populated with a solid mix of young and old talent, had just claimed the first Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout; among their roster were young players like Eric Staal, himself a 100-point scorer that year, and Cam Ward, who went from being an underperforming rookie in the regular season to the starter in their Cup run. With Staal and Ward set as key pieces, and the likes of Justin Williams, Andrew Ladd, and Chad Larose all ready to make regular contributions to the line-up at under 25 years of age, they had some good supplemental talent to place alongside their stars in the future.
But as teams like Carolina capitalized on youth (a lesson teams like Pittsburgh and Washington were quickly picking up on), there were teams that were falling behind. One such team was the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto, prior to the lockout, had built their identity around mostly veteran players, taking advantage of the money afforded to them by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment to become heavy players in the free agent market over the course of the past half-decade. It was a strategy that continued into the 2005-06 season, but with a catch; a hard salary cap was now in place across the league, so Toronto could not continue to gobble up free agents at will. Instead, they relied on incentive-laden deals for veterans like Jason Allison and Eric Lindros to improve their roster for low salary cost. Though the Leafs got some solid results for those two, Allison’s lack of speed made him far less useful in the modern game, while Lindros was hampered by wrist injuries all season long, the latest in a long line of health issues for the once-dominant centreman. Other veterans like Mariusz Czerkawski and Ed Belfour simply didn’t have the talent they once had, and found themselves either waived or watching on the sidelines as Toronto missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1997-98 season. Veteran coach Pat Quinn was also cast aside as the Leafs looked for new ideas behind the bench, as well as new talent on the ice.
One area of concern for the Maple Leafs was in goal, where Belfour had failed to perform in the new NHL. Though Belfour had done enough to pass the legendary Terry Sawchuk for second-most wins all-time in the league, his overall stats were not nearly as impressive. His save percentage was a paltry .892, ranking him 40th of 51 eligible goalies that year (counting eligible as 25+ games played), while his 3.29 goals against average put him 42nd on that list. Belfour, much like Allison, Lindros, and Czerkawski, no longer had the quality that Toronto would require going forward. His original back-up, Mikael Tellqvist, didn’t fare too much better (10-11-2 record, 3.13 GAA, .895 SV%), and was unlikely to be starting material. The third-stringer for that year, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, put up a heroic effort late in the season, earning points in each of his eleven decisions (9-0-2 record, 2.22 GAA, .924 SV%). Despite nearly dragging the Maple Leafs into the playoffs by his own glove, the management team felt that he would not be consistent enough to be the team’s starter next year.
Since none of Belfour, Tellqvist, or Aubin was trusted by the Leafs’ management to be the starter going forward, they had to look elsewhere for a potential starter. In the original timeline (OTL), they looked to the Boston Bruins, who had finished last in the Northeastern Division, and 13th in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins finished worse than the Leafs based primarily on their offense, which managed only 230 goals compared to Toronto’s 257 – totals magnified by the shot percentage of both teams. Though Boston managed almost 200 more shots than Toronto (2511 to 2323), the Maple Leafs’ 10.9 shooting percentage was far ahead of Boston, who were 5th-worst in the NHL with a 9.1 shooting rate. In goal, however, the Bruins had the advantage. They had a .902 overall save percentage, compared to .895 for the Maple Leafs. The primary factor in this was 31-year-old Tim Thomas, formerly a global journeyman, who managed a .917 SV% in 38 games.
Thomas was unlikely to be traded. Even at the age of 31, the Bruins felt that Thomas could be at least a 1B going forward, and would not want to risk overplaying their young net prospect, Hannu Toivonen. Toivonen had just played his rookie year with the Bruins, managing a respectable 9-5-4 record in 20 games. His save percentage was also quite laudable at .914, ranking him third among back-ups (defining back-ups in this case as less than 25 games played). This left 25-year-old Andrew Raycroft on the outs. Raycroft did have a small bit of pedigree to his name, having won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in 2003-04. That year, he managed a 2.05 GAA and a .926 SV% in 57 games, racking up 29 wins. The 05-06 season started with him in mind as the starting netminder (Raycroft started eight of their first ten games), but his numbers cratered over the course of the year. He finished with a .879 SV%, worst in the league among all 51 qualified goalies. It was one bad year for Raycroft, but with Toivonen waiting behind him, Andrew was now expendable.
Toronto, at the time, may have felt that Raycroft was exactly the kind of guy they needed in goal. He was young enough, and he had previous experience as a starter, even if he had just come off a poor season. They could always bank on him to have a bounce-back year and return to the form that saw him win the Calder Trophy, and they were prepared to gamble hard on it – hard enough to acquire him in exchange for prized goaltending prospect Tuukka Rask. Now, even at the time, it seemed a rather hasty transaction; according to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun, if the Maple Leafs had just waited a week or so, they could have had Raycroft as an unrestricted free agent, without the need to give up anything. Instead, they were desperate to get their man, and made the trade anyway. Andrew did go to free agency, but he eventually did sign with Toronto very early in July, spending two years in blue and white. Though he did end up tying the team wins record (37, previously held alone by Ed Belfour) thanks to playing 72 games in 2006-07, his play with the Leafs was mediocre at best, and awful at worst. Rask, meanwhile, went on to become the #1 goalie prospect in the Bruins’ system. He would eventually become an NHL regular in the 2009-10 season, playing 45 games. So stellar was he in goal (22-12-5 record, 1.97 GAA, .931 SV%) that he finished 4th in the Calder Trophy race, and even got votes for the Hart Trophy for league MVP. Though he was not the starter for their Stanley Cup run in 2011 (that was Thomas), Rask has been the starter for Boston since the 2013 lockout-shortened season. He won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie in 2013-14, and led his team back to the Stanley Cup Final the previous year, only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks.
So, my mind immediately went to the questions surrounding this deal. What if Toronto had decided to send a different prospect over? What if they went elsewhere in the league for a starting goalie?
WHAT IF THE RASK/RAYCROFT TRADE NEVER HAPPENED?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED: No matter what, Toronto needed a goalie. Belfour was too old, Tellqvist wasn’t good enough, and Aubin wasn’t trusted enough. They had to get somebody before the start of the next season, and it seemed like they were desperate enough to make the move on draft day. If it seemed like it, that’s probably because that was really the case. The feeling in Toronto was that MLSE wanted a playoff team at all costs; they had already failed once in their mission (the club’s first time missing the playoffs in seven seasons), and a second failure would likely not be tolerated. A key part of achieving a playoff spot would be finding somebody who could play in goal regularly, and be good enough to give Toronto a chance in every game they played.
Now, in the case of this trade, I will examine two possibilities as to how this could go, aside from the OTL. In scenario A, it could be Raycroft that is traded, but not for Tuukka Rask. In scenario B, it could be Rask that is traded, but for a goalie other than Andrew Raycroft. For Part I, I will start with the first of the two.
SCENARIO A: RAYCROFT IS TRADED, BUT NOT FOR TUUKKA RASK
WHAT MUST CHANGE: Not too much, really. If Toronto was really so desperate as to pay a premium for a goalie they could have for free in a few short days, they just need to send somebody (or something) other than Tuukka Rask to Boston to complete the trade. They didn’t have too many prized prospects, but they did have one that makes this scenario very possible.
The 2006 World Junior Championship was a tale of two goalies from Toronto’s perspective. While Tuukka Rask, the 21st Overall Pick in the 2005 Draft, suited up for Finland, the Leafs also had their 90th Overall Pick from 2004, Justin Pogge, playing in the tournament for Canada. Pogge claimed the starting role for the hosts from the get-go, and put up ridiculous numbers in net. His save percentage was .952, while his goals against average was an astounding 1.00, numbers helped by his three shutouts in the tournament. Rask wasn’t much worse, though; despite Finland being eliminated in the semi-finals against the Canadians, they needed a spectacular effort from their starter just to get that far, as Tuukka stopped all 53 shots he faced in their quarter-final win over Sweden, 1-0 in overtime. Indeed, it was Rask that was selected as the best by both the media and the tournament directorate, as he seemed to single-handedly keep his team in games they had no business winning. Pogge, despite his excellent stats, was pretty well set behind a team that included such blue-liners as Marc Staal, Kris Russell, Kris Letang, Cam Barker, and the late Luc Bourdon. Not a single player from Finland’s defense, however, made the NHL full-time, and only Teemu Laakso saw any NHL time – only 17 games worth.
Toronto now had a choice of two goalies; Pogge was seen as the more NHL-ready of the two, and had finished the 2005-06 season as the top goalie in both the WHL and Canadian junior hockey as a whole, winning both the WHL and CHL’s respective awards. Rask, meanwhile, was already playing in the SM-Liiga, Finland’s top tier, for Ilves. Though he was not quite a full-fledged starter, he was getting regular playing time, and his .924 SV% in the 05-06 season was rather respectable for that league. (For context, Both Sinuhe Wallinheimo of JyP Jyvaskyla and Niklas Backstrom of Karpat held the lead that year with a .940 SV% each.) In the OTL, Pogge’s personal honours and his track record of success at the national and international level made him the goalie of choice for the Maple Leafs, who viewed him as the safer prospect. But it is not inconceivable that John Ferguson Jr. may have altered course. He was someone who liked to identify talent in Europe; 7 of his 13 draft picks as Maple Leaf General Manager were from the continent. It is very possible that he feels Rask’s potential, plus his experience against grown men in Finland, would be enough to hold on to.
It is the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The Maple Leafs are looking at options to replace their aging goalie, Ed Belfour, who is on the verge of leaving for free agency, and looks to be well past his prime. They have identified a potential trade target, the Boston Bruins, who have three potential NHL goalies on their roster at this moment: Tim Thomas, their newly-minted starter, Hannu Toivonen, a prospect who had performed rather admirably in a short amount of time the past season, and Andrew Raycroft, who fell down to Earth following a fantastic rookie season on the other side of the 04-05 lockout. John Ferguson Jr. and new Boston GM Peter Chiarelli eventually come to terms on a deal, and head to the league desk to make it official. Soon afterward, Commissioner Gary Bettman heads to the podium at GM Place, serenaded by the customary chorus of boos that has come to be expected whenever he steps to the dais. By the time he has spoken the words, “we have a trade to announce”, the boos turn to whispers of shock and excitement.
Gary: “The Boston Bruins trade goaltender Andrew Raycroft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for goaltender Justin Pogge.”
Observers across both the stadium and the hockey world as a whole are left stunned. Toronto has traded a widely sought-after goaltending prospect for the man who had just been relegated to being Boston’s third-string goalie. There is a small feeling of hope among Leaf fans, as Raycroft has previous starting experience, and there’s always the possibility that his sophomore slump in 05-06 was just an aberration. This hope is drowned out by a heavy dose of annoyance among many in blue and white. Yes, Raycroft had starting experience in the past, but Toronto paid a heavy price – a prized goalie prospect who had just won the World Juniors for Canada. Leaf fans at GM Place that day react with outright fury. Not only did Pogge win the World Juniors in BC that year, but he was a local boy, of sorts, having been raised in Penticton, BC. JFJ, in his interview with TSN’s James Duthie following the trade, remarks that while Pogge was destined to become a good NHL goaltender, Rask was a special talent, one who had a shot at becoming an elite netminder. He argues that a player of Rask’s calibre was worth giving up anyone else for, even if it was Pogge. Sports talk radio across Toronto is set ablaze by the multiple calls from fans who have no desire to sympathize with the Leafs’ GM, and many within the fan base are calling for his firing. MLSE does not pull the trigger, as they were not as concerned with the future at the time. The plan was to build for now, future be damned.
From Toronto’s Perspective: The immediate future doesn’t change much. The Leafs have still given up a top goaltending prospect for Raycroft, and the impact of Rask would not be felt for a few years. They still struggle in the 2006-07 season, but eventually do find themselves in a playoff spot on the final day of the season. They could very well have made it through, but Sergei Brylin’s miss for the New Jersey Devils in a shootout gives the New York Islanders two badly-needed points; the Islanders go through at the expense of the Leafs. Raycroft does tie the wins record in a Leaf season, but his 2.99 GAA and .894 SV% aren’t much of an improvement on Ed Belfour. Ferguson tries to rectify his mistake by trading his 2007 1st-Rounder and 2nd-Rounder, as well as a 4th-Round pick in 2009, for Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell from San Jose. Though Toskala proved a little bit more effective for the Leafs, the team around him was beginning to fall behind, and by January, they were well out of the playoff picture. It is by this month that Ferguson is sacked, followed by head coach Paul Maurice at the end of the season. The following year is treated as a write-off; Toronto has lost Mats Sundin, their long-time captain and superstar, meaning that they no longer have a true elite forward. Raycroft is no longer with the team, having been released following the buying out of the last year his three-year contract. His time with the Maple Leafs was, for all intents and purposes, a failure.
By the 2009-10 season, Toronto has a new regime in charge. Former Stanley Cup-winning General Manager Brian Burke has taken over the reins, with Ron Wilson behind the bench for his second year. They preach a tough brand of hockey, one that people in Toronto are quick to get behind. There are younger players across the line-up, with the likes of Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn, and star acquisition Phil Kessel all looking to get major playing time. But the most intriguing young prospect going into that season is in goal. After being signed to an NHL deal in May of 2007, Tuukka Rask has spent two years with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. His first year was rather mediocre, but as he got used to the North American game, he put up solid numbers in the 2008-09 season, registering 33 wins and a .915 SV% in 57 games. Burke felt that Rask was ready to become an NHL regular, and could provide good support for starter Vesa Toskala.
The season goes on, and it becomes clear that Toskala simply can’t get it done. The team starts the campaign 2-6-1, the only wins coming via Rask, who has several sterling outings early on in the year. If Rask wasn’t the starter, he was at least going to cause a controversy about the role. Toskala is eventually traded in a deal with Burke’s old team, the Anaheim Ducks, along with aging forward Jason Blake; Jean-Sebastien Giguere comes the other way, and serves as both a 1B and mentor to Rask, who puts up ridiculous numbers despite the rather awful team in front of him. He finishes with a .931 SV% in 42 games, tops among all starting goalies, earning several Calder Trophy votes, several Vezina Trophy votes, and even Hart Trophy votes. The Leafs, in spite of Rask’s efforts, finish well out of the playoffs, 13th in the Eastern Conference with 80 points. Their 1st-Round Pick that year, given to Boston in the Kessel trade, is used on Nino Niederreiter, while their 2nd-Rounder in the same deal is used on Swedish prospect Ludwig Rensfeldt.
In 2010-11, the Rask-Giguere tandem looks to be the set pairing going forward for the next couple of years. Despite the plans, both goalies suffer injuries during the course of the year, prompting the Leafs to call up James Reimer mid-season. Reimer proves to be every bit Rask’s equal, and Toronto makes an incredible late-season run, finishing with 89 points. The Maple Leafs are pretty much back where they were in the mid-2000s, just outside the playoff spots in 10th place. There is now hope for the future, and 2011-12 starts with the Leafs fielding a very young goaltending duo of Rask and Reimer. The latter, unfortunately, suffers a concussion during the course of the season, and the pressure mounts on Rask to take the reins in his place. In 42 games, Rask performs quite admirably, notching 21 wins, but the team as a whole fails to make it. Losing one of their young netminders was simply too much for them to bear, and following the season, Ron Wilson is dismissed as head coach. Finishing 11th in the East, the Maple Leafs have the 9th Overall Pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, selecting defenseman Jacob Trouba.
A lockout-shortened season proves to be just what Toronto needs to make it through to the playoffs, and after nine calendar years of waiting, the Maple Leafs are playing post-season hockey with former Stanley Cup-winning coach Randy Carlyle in charge. With 58 points, they are now pitted against the Boston Bruins, the very team that they made that trade with so many years ago. The Bruins, with former Russian junior goalie Anton Khudobin in goal, have home-ice advantage, but Rask proves to be far too good. The Leafs win the series in 6, facing the New York Rangers in the next round. Home-ice advantage, this time around, falls to the Leafs, and they take their chances, winning in 5 games. For the first time since 2002, they are in the Conference Finals, matched up against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite a valiant effort from the superb Rask-Reimer tandem, Toronto simply isn’t good enough. The Penguins win in 6 games, going on to face Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final; the Leafs’ 46-year Cup drought will continue.
Despite not getting to the Final, the result is seen as a validation of Randy Carlyle’s coaching style. Though there are concerns about the amount of shots that Toronto allows, they seem to be alleviated by the fact that Tuukka Rask has performed very well in the face of constant barrages on his goal; those who saw him back in his World Junior days knew he was used to it. Reimer, however, was a man in limbo. People knew he was good, and could probably start somewhere, but with Ben Scrivens ready to fill in as a back-up, he was very likely to be boxed out. Something had to be done, and that something was done at the 2013 Entry Draft, as the Leafs traded Reimer to the New Jersey Devils for a 2nd-Round Pick (used on centreman Laurent Dauphin) and winger Bobby Butler. The Devils were looking for a long-term replacement for the legendary Martin Brodeur, and had cast their eyes on a couple of goalies, including Vancouver’s starter-in-waiting Cory Schneider. The idea of giving up a 1st-Rounder for Schneider, however, proves to be too much for them in this timeline, and they settle for Reimer for a lower price. (Because they had no need to acquire Jonathan Bernier from the Kings, the Maple Leafs hold on to Scrivens, Matt Frattin, and their 2nd-Rounder from 2015, which they eventually use on Travis Dermott.)
With Rask anointed as the #1 guy for 2013-14 thanks to his signing an 8-year contract in the off-season, the line-up for Toronto seems set. Unfortunately for the Leafs, a pattern has developed in recent years; a pattern of late-season collapses. They were pretty comfortable half-way through the 11-12 season, but they fell apart in the stretch run, with then-GM Brian Burke describing the scenario as an “18-wheeler falling off a cliff”. The lockout-shortened season afforded little time for them to repeat the feat, but with the full season now restored, the late-season swoon was an option once again. Not even Vezina-winning Tuukka Rask and his .930 SV% could help stop the fall, and the Leafs finish out of the playoffs, notching 84 points. GM Dave Nonis, who took over for the ousted Burke in the 2012-13 off-season, now has team president Brendan Shanahan to answer to. Shanahan proves to be very decisive in determining who Nonis should draft in 2014; with the likes of Nick Ritchie or Nikolaj Ehlers being suggested within the media, the General Manager instead uses his pick on Swedish prospect William Nylander, an exciting young forward with the ability to play either at centre or on the wing.
2014-15 sees the Maple Leafs now needing to secure their spot in the playoffs, and needing especially to prevent a late-season collapse. Unfortunately, the toll of so many barrages against him begins to take a toll on the Finnish goalie. His save percentage drops down to a still-respectable .922 in 70 games, but the team in front of him is still too poor to hold up over the course of a season. They finish with a total of 72 points, 5th-worst in the NHL. Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis are both given their marching orders mid-season, and Shanahan declares in private to the MLSE board that there needs to be a full re-build. The build begins with the 2015 Entry Draft, as the Leafs select defenseman Noah Hanifin at 5th Overall. He is expected to get into the NHL immediately, and has potential #1-pairing talent; the possibility of being linked with Jacob Trouba is thrown about, allowing the Leafs to one day field a monster duo for years to come.
2015-16 is a rebuilding year. The key pieces of the team going forward are identified, and Tuukka Rask is seen as chief among them. One player who is not so lucky is Phil Kessel, who is dealt in a massive trade that sees picks and prospects go the other way. With little offensive talent to be seen, new head coach Mike Babcock is not expected to take this team to glory any time soon. The leadership core inside the locker room is beginning to change, as well, with former captain Dion Phaneuf traded to provincial rivals Ottawa mid-season. The Maple Leafs finish near the bottom of the pack, 2nd-last in the league. This proves rather costly, as they are unable to win the Draft Pick Lottery, falling all the way to 4th in the Draft Order. With the two top picks going to Edmonton (Patrik Laine) and Winnipeg (Auston Matthews) respectively, the Leafs select Jesse Puljujarvi, a young winger out of Finland. (Since Toronto does not make the trade for Fredrik Andersen in this timeline, they do not lose their 1st-Rounder acquired from Pittsburgh, which they use to select Sam Steel.)
2016-17 sees the beginning of hope for the Maple Leafs, who now have a solid young defensive core, and are prepared to bring William Nylander into a full-time role in the NHL as a future #1 centreman. Though he struggles defensively, his creative play proves to be useful immediately. Tuukka Rask, however, is declining. Once one of the consensus best goalies in the NHL, he has slipped behind in his play, but still is good enough to be an NHL starter. He posts a .915 SV% in 66 games, a slight drop from the previous campaign. The Leafs lack a true impact centreman, and finish with only 87 points in the season, 11th in the East. They end up selecting 12th in the Draft, taking winger Martin Necas out of the Czech Republic. (Because they are not in a playoff position, and thus in no position to make a trade for a veteran player, the Brian Boyle trade never happens. Instead, they hold on to their 2nd-Round pick, which they use 43rd Overall on centreman Eetu Luostarinen.)
The Maple Leafs Today: In the modern day, Toronto is a building team, and the 2017-18 season is their first chance to make a splash in the playoffs; Cup contention is still a couple of years away, if at all. Defensively, they look to be well-set for the future. Their top four of Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Jacob Trouba, and Noah Hanifin could one day look to be one of the strongest in the NHL, and behind them, they have a proven starter in Tuukka Rask. William Nylander has been anointed as the centreman of the future, with Jesse Puljujarvi and Martin Necas named as potential line-mates, and Robby Fabbri (acquired in the Kessel trade with Pittsburgh) as William’s deputy. Nylander doesn’t quite look like a franchise player, but could look a good fit for the #1 spot in Toronto should he improve his defensive game. Thanks to solid late-round drafting and shrewd trading, the team around the core is pretty impressive, including the likes of Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, James van Riemsdyk, and Josh Leivo (who, in this timeline, has a more advanced role.) They only have one playoff appearance since the Rask/Raycroft trade, but it was a rather memorable one, as they advanced to the Conference Finals in 2013. They have, however, failed to make a playoff appearance in a full season since 2003-04.
Despite Toronto’s build toward “contender” status, the new timeline means that they miss out on a few key players in the draft. The alteration of the team starts in 2012, as the team misses out on Morgan Rielly, drafting Jacob Trouba instead. Trouba is by no means bad, but Rielly is beginning to look like a true top-pairing defender as of the end of the 2017-18 season. 2015 and 2016 also lead to some major changes, as the Leafs draft Noah Hanifin and Jesse Puljujarvi, respectively. Hanifin certainly looks to be one who could play alongside Trouba for a long time, and Puljujarvi is no bust-in-the-making. But those two now replace Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner – two players who are already impact players in the NHL at a young age. Matthews is a cornerstone centreman, one that teams dream of being able to draft, and Mitch Marner is already a dynamic offensive player with a keen passing eye. Missing out on players like those two can mean everything for a building club, especially someone like Matthews; how many teams in the post-lockout era have gone all the way without a true #1 centreman to build around?
Tuukka Rask was viewed with serious disdain following his arrival in Toronto in the 07-08 season. The Leafs had a World Junior-winning goalie, and gave him up for an eventual failure in Andrew Raycroft. And to make things worse, they could have given Boston the guy that Pogge beat twice in that tournament. Rask had the deck stacked against him early on. But it’s a credit to Rask that he stuck through it, and eventually won over fans and media in Hogtown, becoming a bona fide starting goaltender. He took Toronto on a memorable playoff run in 2013, and won a Vezina Trophy the following year – the very first for the Leafs in the voting era for the award. While it was eventually revealed that the Leafs could have had Raycroft for free way back when, the move to get him for Justin Pogge is now viewed as a wash. Not quite a win, but not quite a loss; Pogge would never have made it, anyway.
From Boston’s Perspective: As with Toronto, the immediate future doesn’t change much. They have made their choice; Tim Thomas is to hold down the fort in the 06-07 season, while Hannu Toivonen prepares to one day assume the starting job. Justin Pogge, their new jewel from the WHL, will head to Providence and develop his game, looking to one day battle Toivonen for the reins. The 2006-07 season is one of rebuilding for the Bruins, with their former top forward Joe Thornton now in San Jose, and their new star of the future, Phil Kessel, still a few years away from his prime. (Kessel would actually spend time off in his rookie year after discovering testicular cancer in December. He would have surgery to remove the tumour, returning to the Bruins in January, and winning the Bill Masterton Trophy for his perseverance in the face of a life-altering disease.) Despite the solid playmaking of Marc Savard, and the promising play of defensive free agent Zdeno Chara, Boston is back at the bottom of the Northeastern Division. While Thomas plays well enough, Toivonen ends up following in the footsteps of Andrew Raycroft. The Finn’s save percentage drops all the way to .875 in 18 games, .004 worse than the man who is now a Maple Leaf.
2007-08 doesn’t change much, either, with Justin Pogge now being called up for four games in this campaign. Pogge is improving at the AHL level, and does show some early flashes of potential, managing a 2-1-1 record and a .888 save percentage in the short time that he spends in the NHL. At this point in the OTL, Pogge and Rask were performing at a similar level in the AHL, so not much would change with the alteration of personnel. Boston still makes the playoffs, and still faces the Montreal Canadiens, losing in 7 games. It’s the start of good things for the B’s, and they are left hoping that Pogge will be ready to take over on the NHL roster in a year or two.
Unfortunately, the 2008-09 season exposes the young Boston prospect. Despite winning his lone NHL game that season (against Toronto, no less), his AHL play begins to deteriorate. His .895 SV% in the regular season is bad enough, but two utterly disastrous performances in the first round of the AHL playoffs leaves Kevin Regan to clean up the mess. Providence does win their first-round series against Portland in seven games, but lose to Worcester in the next round – Pogge plays two more games in this series, and lets in a couple of howlers. It has become clear to the Bruins that Pogge, like Toivonen and Raycroft before him, is not good enough to be a regular NHL-calibre starter. He is traded to the Anaheim Ducks for a 6th-Round Pick in 2011, which is used on defender Dennis Robertson.
With Pogge no longer an option, the Bruins need to find someone to be a back-up for Tim Thomas, who has evolved into a certified NHL starting goalie. He claims the 2009 Vezina Trophy, with a solid 36-11-7 record, and a monstrous .933 save percentage. They don’t need an immediate replacement, just somebody that can be good now, and great later. They look to Sweden, where a goaltender by the name of Jonas Gustavsson has put up a fantastic season with Farjestads BK, leading them to the Swedish Elitserien title. With NHL teams salivating over the prospect of signing him, Gustavsson elects to sign with the Boston Bruins, seeing an opportunity to one day become the starter of the club. He is thrown into the fire in the 2009-10 season, as Thomas’ dip in form forces the Bruins to turn to the man known as “The Monster”. Gustavsson isn’t exactly amazing, but manages an acceptable .902 SV% in 45 games. Not amazing, not even “good”, but enough to show that there could be some potential for him in the NHL. The Bruins end up with 86 points, finishing 9th in the East, one point out of a playoff spot. With the two picks they acquire from Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade, the Bruins pick up Nino Niederreiter (5th Overall) and Ludwig Rensfeldt (35th Overall). The other 1st-Rounder they had was dealt to Florida in a deal that sent Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell to the Bruins. Florida would deal it to the Kings, who used it on defenseman Dylan McIlrath.
In the OTL, 2011 is when Boston struck, winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in over 40 years. So, having missed out on the playoffs the previous year, would this new Boston team stick to real life and go all the way? The answer is very likely “Yes”. Simply put, even with a change in back-up goalies, Tim Thomas would still return to form in this season. The team in front of him would still be solidly built for this run, and he would still start every game for the team in the playoffs. Though they may drop a couple of points in the regular season standings, their position doesn’t change, and they still take down Montreal, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Vancouver in order. Though Gustavsson doesn’t do nearly as well as Rask, he is a non-factor in the playoffs; Thomas plays far too well for Jonas to even get a chance. (Also Of Note: Because of the aforementioned Kessel trade, the Bruins have the Leafs’ 1st-Round pick in this draft. Toronto doesn’t move in the standings, and thus the Bruins select Dougie Hamilton, just as they do in the OTL.)
Much like the past year, despite the drop in quality of the back-up goalie, Boston’s fortunes don’t change much. Gustavsson puts up a 9-9-2 record in his 23 games with the B’s, notching a save percentage of .902; while this would have been “average” a few years ago, this is now a somewhat poor total in what is becoming a more defensive game. Boston still finishes in second in the East, thanks to the Northeastern and Southeastern Divisions being awful. They still face off against Washington, and still lose in seven games. With Gustavsson somewhat underwhelming, and Thomas soon to be on his way out, the Bruins look to the draft for goaltending help, selecting Malcolm Subban 23rd Overall.
The lockout-shortened 2013 season is the time for Gustavsson to put up or shut up, and put up he doesn’t. Boston is forced to turn to Anton Khudobin for the majority of their games, and Khudobin does pretty well, managing 36 games, with a 21-9-5 record and a .920 SV%, certainly solid numbers. Gustavsson proves to be horrid, putting up a .879 SV% in 14 games, and effectively ending his Boston career. Boston, thanks to the efforts of Khudobin, notch 60 points, matched up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have developed Tuukka Rask into a true-blue star goalie. Rask, who was nearly traded to Boston instead of Justin Pogge so many years back, shows the Bruins they made the wrong decision, as the Leafs win the series in 6 games. It’s a minor reckoning for this Boston management group, as they now have to find a replacement for Gustavsson, who may well have played his way out of the National Hockey League.
With Malcolm Subban still a few years away from the NHL, and Khudobin unproven as a full-time starter, the Bruins make their move in free agency, signing fellow Russian Nikolai Khabibulin to act as a mentor of sorts. Khudobin, as expected by quite a few people within hockey, is simply not good enough to be an elite starter, but still puts up somewhat respectable numbers, managing 35 wins in 58 games, with a .916 SV%. Khabibulin, meanwhile, lasts only four games, his .811 SV% clearly revealing the 41-year-old as a shell of the man that won a Stanley Cup ten years prior. His spot is taken by Chad Johnson, another free agent signing, who proves to be a more-than-capable back-up. Boston finishes with 112 points, losing the President’s Trophy to the Anaheim Ducks, but still ending the regular season 1st in the East. Given Detroit in the first round, Khudobin shows himself to be unfit for playoff hockey once more, replaced two games in by Johnson. The Bruins’ move in goal doesn’t help much, as Detroit manages a four-game sweep. The Bruins, as a result of their regular season finish, pick 23rd in the 2014 Entry Draft, and select Finnish winger Kasperi Kapanen.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, 2014-15 is when the wheels fall off. They still have a solid team, but inconsistency in goal means that they have to scramble for options. Khudobin plays 56 games in the regular season, managing a paltry .900 save percentage. His back-up is Niklas Svedberg, formerly a draft pick of Minnesota. Svedberg actually performs somewhat well, with a 7-5-1 record in 18 games, and a pretty respectable .918 SV%. Called in for a short period of time with the Bruins, Malcolm Subban’s maiden year at the NHL level sees him play 10 games. He manages a 4-3-3 record, with a .891 SV% – not great, but okay for someone who is still learning. The drastically declining goalkeeping for Boston means that they miss out on a playoff spot, only racking up 92 points. Their playoff miss spells the end of Peter Chiarelli’s tenure as General Manager; though he did very well in bringing Boston a Stanley Cup, the core he had built was beginning to see their best days go by, and the club now needed fresh blood and fresh ideas.
The rebuild begins at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, with Milan Lucic headed to Los Angeles for Martin Jones, Colin Miller, and the Kings’ 1st-Round Pick in that Draft, used on defenseman Jakub Zboril. With Khudobin essentially done as a starter, and Niklas Svedberg uncertain to stay on as a back-up, Jones now looks set to take over as the #1 goalie in Beantown, with Malcolm Subban as his deputy. The move works out well for the B’s, as Jones plays 65 games of high-calibre hockey, racking up a .918 SV%. Subban, however, falters as the back-up; with 20 games played, he manages a 6-10-1 record, with a save percentage of .881 – not what the Bruins wanted to see from their potential future starter. The Bruins finish in 9th place in the East, not bad for the beginning of a rebuild. (Because they hold on to Martin Jones in this timeline, they do not get San Jose’s 1st-Round Pick in the 2016 Draft. The Sharks, forced to go with Jonas Gustavsson as their starter, are eliminated in the first round by the L.A. Kings, and use their 17th-Overall selection on defender Dante Fabbro.)
Despite mostly looking for prospects the previous year, Boston now saw it fit to try and make a playoff run in 2016-17. They now had a proper #1 netminder in Martin Jones, and Malcolm Subban still worth a look. While last year was somewhat of a trial for Jones as a starter, this year he would be expected to duplicate the results of the previous campaign. He would rise to those expectations, picking up 35 wins in 65 games. His .912 save percentage isn’t lights-out, but respectable for sure. Subban, however, has proven that he simply can’t cut it with Boston. With 11 games of work, Subban manages only 3 wins, with a .863 save rate. Zane McIntyre finds himself backing up Jones late in the season, with the former 1st-Rounder Subban now a candidate to leave via the upcoming expansion draft.
Boston, despite a mid-season coaching change (or indeed, because of it), ends the season in 3rd in the Atlantic Division, setting up a playoff date with the Ottawa Senators. Martin Jones, given his first taste of playoff action, actually manages to give the Sens a hard time, but Ottawa just seems to be the team destined to make it through. The Senators eliminate the Bruins in a hard-fought seven-game series. The Bruins still end up 18th in the Draft Order, selecting Finnish blue-liner Urho Vaakanainen.
The Bruins Today: Boston had a bit of a dip for a couple of years, but they have still been a consistent contender for playoff spots, and still hold on to the Stanley Cup they won in the OTL. The core that won them that Cup is still present in the current squad, with the nucleus virtually untouched. Patrice Bergeron, once the arguable best defensive forward in the NHL, is still a two-way threat. Brad Marchand, once a solid second-line superpest, has evolved into a complete forward that would get on any starting line-up in the world. And even at 40 years of age, 6’9” Zdeno Chara can still do a job, and do it well. Though they miss out on David Pastrnak in this timeline, they have a pretty nice replacement finally ready to go in Kasperi Kapanen, a flashy young winger who can do time on the penalty kill when needed. Other young players such as Danton Heinen, Charlie McAvoy, and Jake DeBrusk look ready to make NHL impacts, giving the B’s the potential to be Cup contenders again very soon.
Despite a few years of struggling for goaltending depth, the Bruins have finally found their man in Martin Jones. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do enough to dispel the stereotype of the Boston system as a goalie prospect “graveyard”. Several times, the B’s have tried to make someone in their organization a starter. First it was Andrew Raycroft, who had a rookie-of-the-year campaign, then got cast off following a terrible second year. Hannu Toivonen was next in line, and suffered the same fate. Jonas Gustavsson was brought in from Sweden with high expectations on his shoulders, and never met them. And Malcolm Subban had a couple of years to try and prove himself, but never lived up to his 1st-Round potential. It’s fortunate for Jones that he learned his craft in the Los Angeles system, which has constantly churned out solid net talent (Jones, Jonathan Quick, and Jonathan Bernier come to mind, here).
The failures, however, still linger in the minds of fans, coaches, and pundits across the hockey world. And nobody exemplifies them more than Justin Pogge. Brought in to be the heir apparent in 2006 (the direct replacement for Raycroft, even!), Pogge was given the time and the tools to succeed in North American hockey. But the time for him to prove himself on an NHL roster would never come; his regression in Providence during the 2008-09 season was capped off by him letting in goals that a high school netminder would be benched for. Rather than give him another chance in the NHL, he was shipped off to Anaheim for a late-round pick. He came to Boston a hot prospect, and left a laughingstock.
The move to get Pogge for Raycroft was seen at the time as Peter Chiarelli having a top young goalie land right in his lap, but the question had to be asked at this point: “What if they had gotten Tuukka Rask, instead?”
Coming up in the next week of two, Part II: Rask is still traded, but not for Andrew Raycroft.